Sunday, April 1, 2012

Practice Period Blues

I only have a day to get this written, the sesshin at the end of the spring practice period at Green Gulch starts Sunday evening. We'll take the refuges after dinner and then it's no talking, no reading, no writing, no eye contact for seven days. After the experience last time I'm not sure exactly how this one will go, but since I can sit all seven days I will.

Follow The Schedule Completely

One of the attractions of monastic life, and therefor of participating fully in a practice period, is that you don't have to waste any time thinking about what to do next. There's a schedule, structure, the meals and services run on time, tea is served at a particular hour, bedtime is announced with clackers, the wake up bell is rung each morning by the shousso. There is a correct way to do everything, and a place and time for every ceremony, even just the ceremony of zazen.

Householders do not enjoy such luxury, we are always juggling multiple schedules, constantly adjusting priorities depending on both necessity and preference. Having kids throws in a level of imperative that makes trade offs that were once unthinkable a practical reality: someone may be likable but flawed, and do I have time for that? In that environment, dedicating time to practice and meet regularly with a teacher means cutting more and more discretionary activity out of your life. When I hear people talk about this as a matter of necessity, not preference, I understand what they mean.

These two worlds come into collision when your teacher leads a practice period. Both residents and visitors who have applied to spend a number of weeks on the farm without leaving, and to sit each morning and through two one day sittings and finally a seven day sesshin at the end. This puts immense demands on the teachers time especially having regular practice discussions with everyone who signed up.

It becomes basically impossible to schedule practice discussion, making your best option to sign up for the one-day and seven-day sits. If a practice period is a tour of duty, i'm a reservist: one weekend a month, seven days a year. While is hard to have a regular schedule interrupted, it's important to consider what a rare thing it is to have access to this level of practice as lay practitioners.

The Inside and the Outside

As a lay practitioner, no matter how serious, there will always be a line between being inside the community and being outside. As much as I try to walk across that line on a regular basis, at the end of the day I can go home, have a beer and a burger and there's no Tenzo to tell me different, no Ino to check in with if I want to skip meditation, no Tanto to keep me from using my iPad at the dinner table.

The support system that makes monastic life possible stays right where it is when we go home.
Being at Green Gulch for a day of sitting, or a week of Sheehin, is a step out of day to day living. But it's not a complete step into monastic living, it's something between, a Zen twilight where the people in the outside world don't quite understand what you're up to, but to a certain extent neither do the people inside.